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The Bridge Club

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George S. Kaufman said that, once he retired, he and Noel Coward would attend every opening on Broadway, and walking up the aisle would turn to the worried, pacing producers and say: "It needs work."

I love that. All new plays, as Kaufman and Coward well knew, need work. And while the image of them whistling up the aisle seems heartless, I think it's just because each would be relieved it wasn't one of his plays that needed work.

So as a one-time playwright myself, and with the same air of inevitability and relief, I'd like to say to Matt Smith, regarding his new play, The Bridge Club, now at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company: "It needs work."

The general ... well, I won't say "plot," but maybe "idea" of The Bridge Club is that four strangers meet nightly on a bridge and engage in a lot of talk about life, regret and death. Are they alive and contemplating suicide, or are they dead and condemned to this purgatory of self-examination? You tell me. Just when you think you've got a handle on it, Smith alters the rules and the reality of the situation ... but not, I should mention, in a good way. A little confusion can be a good thing, but when it's textually unsupported it becomes exasperating.

Part of the "work" needed here should be Smith admitting that he's blown up a 30-minute sketch into a two-act play. Someone once described Waiting for Godot as a play in which nothing happens ... twice. With his penchant for dramatic stasis, Smith attempts the same thing. But he is no Samuel Beckett -- nobody except Beckett is -- and two hours and 15 minutes is a very long time to watch nothing happen.

There's an adage favored by tyrannical acting teachers: "Show me, don't tell me." Theater needs to be action rather than words; we understand people because of what they do, not what they say. As a playwright, Smith needs a lot more showing and considerably less telling ... especially when the climax turns out to be a monologue of '50s-era self-loathing as inexplicable as it is offensive.

Director John E. Lane, Jr., and his cast -- Grant Bojarski, T. R. Butler, Stephanie Figer and Jeannine Foster-McKelvia -- manage to breathe some life into the play. But again, I say with relief and compassion, "It needs work."

The Bridge Club continues through Dec. 1. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co., 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-288-0358

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